After the earthquake: So farewell then, Plutonium kun

It’s not widely known, but the feckless, reckless, and soon to be penniless operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), built an eight-storey tribute to itself, Denryokukan—The Hall of Electric Power—deep in the heart of the Tokyo youth fashion mecca of Shibuya back in the Orwellian year of 1984, when the picking of the fruits of its tree of monopoly profits was good.

I’d love to bring you a live report from The Hall of Electric Power (admission free), but sadly I can’t, because it was closed in April last year for renovation and was due for a grand renewal open, as we call such things hereabouts, with the impeccable timing that only a master of disaster such as TEPCO can muster, on March 20, just nine days after the tsunami set in train the continuing carnage at Fukushima Daiichi, and The Hall will remain closed, its website informs with deep apologies (if a website could bow, this one would), “for the time being”.

Unable to sample the treasures of the Alpha Wave Library and the delights of the Induction Heating Herb Café first hand, I’ll have to fall back on a report of a long-ago visit by a traveler from Finland, who calls The Hall “a bizarre electrified Disneyland with displays like The Electric Forest and the ever-popular Demand Side Management Theater”. He goes on to recount a surreal 3D movie being shown in the eighth floor TEPCO Hall:

I was expecting a 3D tour of a power plant or the life of a uranium atom or something, and the first 15 minutes were indeed a 2D cartoon on how to conserve energy, but then the actual movie started—and wow! It was very 3D, limited only by the relatively small screen and motionless seats, but the movie itself was an absolutely stunning animated feature called 銀河鉄道999 (Galaxy Express 999). The movie packed all the twists and turns of a 2-hour movie into 15 minutes, with our approximately 10-year-old protagonist taking a steam locomotive in the company of a wispy blonde in a fur hat. The locomotive flies out into space, where he meets a waitress named Kurea who is made of transparent crystal, walks around naked and weeps about being lonely. Then there’s a laser-gun firefight, the train goes out of control and heads straight into an asteroid field, the blonde turns out to be an evil robot in disguise and then the boy wakes up and realizes that it was all a dream… or was it?

But what most intrigued me about his account was reference to a trio of image characters, as we call them hereabouts: “Cosmos kun, Pluto kun (as in -nium) and TEPCO’s generic mascot Denko chan…all explaining why nuclear power is good for you.”

To my eternal chagrin, I haven’t been able to track down Cosmos kun, but Denko chan (でんこちゃん), whose name comes from the “den” of electric power (電力, denryoku), the “ko” (子, child) in which female names so often end, trapping their bearers in a state of eternal childhood, and the generally female diminutive suffix “chan”, can be found everywhere in TEPCO propaganda. Here she is, with finger characteristically a-wagging, admonishing us to “Take care of electricity!”

And here, exhorting us to “Make friends with electricity!”

She features on a bewildering variety of character goods, as we call them hereabouts, from pen top to mobile phone strap, bento lunchbox to T-shirt. Here she graces a pair of oven mitts.

She has—inevitably—attracted her own fan art, some of it—just as inevitably—rather racy.

But the undisputed star of the galaxy of TEPCO image characters must be Plutonium kun. I once wrote of Yu-chan, the cartoon mascot of the battered former coal town of Yubari, that “Japan of course has a massive talent for cuteification: if you can cuteify coalmining, you can cuteify anything”, but never in my darkest nightmares did I dream of encountering Plutonium kun. He’s a hard lad to track down, not having proven as popular as Denko chan, but I did manage to salvage this image from the recesses of the Internet.

The text, with its furigana reading aids above every kanji character and its childish vocabulary, in which “non-fissile uranium” is referred to as “unburnable uranium”, is aimed at the very young, to get them hooked on plutonium from an early age, and demands, nay begs, to be translated, so here goes:

Plutonium is made by having unburnable uranium (uranium 238) soak up neutrons in a nuclear reactor, and when it turns into plutonium it can be used as a fuel in nuclear power generation, just like uranium. By using plutonium, uranium resources can be used more economically. Plutonium kun is a visualization of unburnable uranium being transformed into plutonium.

Plutonium kun also appeared in a 10-minute anime made about a decade ago by the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (now the Japan Atomic Energy Agency), an industry body specializing in the development of fast-breeder and advanced-thermal reactors, an anime that was swiftly withdrawn in part because of a scene in which Plutonium kun gets his boy pal to drink a glass of liquid plutonium while he sweetly intones that “I’m hardly absorbed by your stomach or intestines and I’m expelled by your body, so in fact I can’t kill people at all”.

Kind hands have made the anime available in its entirety here, although for the squeamish and those who don’t speak Japanese I recommend as a sampler the 30-second clip here.

The events of 3/11 make it unlikely we will see the likes of Plutonium kun again. If only his real-life namesake were so easy to eradicate. But wait—there’s one last use to which he can be put. By all accounts, the many routes in and out of the 20km-30km evacuation advisory zone and the 20km evacuation zone around Fukushima Daiichi are largely bereft of warning signs or patrols to prevent the wandering motorist from straying too close to the plant. Why not get TEPCO to deploy the hordes of Mickey Mouses made temporarily unemployed by the closure of Tokyo Disney Resort because of the liquefaction of its parking lots, dress them up as Plutonium kun, arm them with Jedi lightsabers, triple their pay for danger money, and post them on the access roads at the perimeter of the exclusion zone to direct traffic? It would be far less cruel, after all, than the way TEPCO treats its employees battling to avert catastrophe within the plant. And it would serve to remind the world that, as its logo hints, TEPCO has always been a disastrously Mickey Mouse kind of company.


[With massive props to A.E. for the Denryokukan tip-off and many thanks to H.T. for the reminder of the similarities between the TEPCO logo and his mouseship.]

24 responses to “After the earthquake: So farewell then, Plutonium kun

  1. Hard to know whether to laugh or cry at that.

    • A bit of both, I would think. It turns out that the Plutonium kun story was broken before me by the Wall Street Journal, among others, although I didn’t know that when I was writing.
      Good to see that Plutonium kun lives on, sliding down a rainbow, at the Atom World website of the Japan Atomic Energy Authority:
      Atom World is a nuclear theme park/exhibition hall in Tokaimura, the site of the world’s last nuclear criticality incident. A visit is in order.

      • I can’t wait to read about that! I have a feeling Pu memorabilia could become the next big thing… I already want a hat like his….

      • Tokaimura really would be an interesting visit. Decommissioned in 1998, but dismantling it will take until 2021, according to the Yomiuri. I wonder if Cosmos-kun is hiding somewhere in Atom World?

      • I went to Tokaimura last weekend. Couldn’t find Cosmos kun but Plutonium kun was there in all his gorgeousness. Post coming soon.

  2. Pierre Wassenaar

    Kawaaiii! Mind you, aren’t we all in thrall to the Cuteification of the sinister? The cult of simplification of discourse through the mascot of the friendly face. Clegg-kun?

  3. I liked the TEPCO image character. It really gave the company a likable image.

    Er, that’s circular.

    I worked in Shibuya for 4 years, but the TEPCO Pavilion was just mystery building at the end of the street that goes to Harajuku.

    TEPCO has certainly been a great beneficiary of the yen moving from 360 to 80 in my lifetime. Tons to import but no exports.

  4. I think we should vote for Plutonium kun in the election this week….

  5. Great post, I didnt know much about these two characters at all despite seeing Denko-chan around a lot. Ed

  6. Anther fine post.

    Things like this are the modern (post-modern?) version of binding woman’s feet in pre-modern China – so obviously wrong on so many level. Reminds me of the already old science movies I watched in elementary school in the mid-60s.

    The Japanese can be so dead serious about things that, at the proverbial end of the day, just don’t matter, while other times being so cavalier about things that could have grave consequences.

    I guess why this persists in Japanese culture is, at least compared to the U.S. , the lack of pervasiveness cynicism, snark and irony. There are no equivalents in Japanese television, for example, to a David Letterman, John Steward or Stephen Colbert. No Onion.

  7. I lived within 15 or 20 minutes’ walk of the Denryokukan when it opened, and visited the place.

    I remember seeing the Pluto-kun animated feature when it first came out, too. I don’t recall seeing the mini version of Galaxy Express 999, though, which is probably just as well because it actually was a full-length movie–as well as a weekly TV series–and must have been bizarre crammed into 15 minutes.

    Bizarre even by TEPCO standards.

  8. It seems like your general tone here is trying to imply that nuclear power *isn’t* good for you. Get some fucking perspective!

  9. _Galaxy Express 999_ is a great movie (probably better in its full form; summary’s ending isn’t correct (see though maybe it was edited that way). But I can’t help but wonder what the connection is.

    • What makes it all the weirder is that that particular media franchise is stridently environmentalist – more than one episode of the Galaxy Express 999 TV series outright glorifies eco-terrorism.

  10. I dare say Plutonium kun is hanging around Fukushima at the moment just waiting to be ingested-in 25 years time we may see the consequences of just such an unfortunate meeting as we witness the ills and woes of the population there.

  11. Having been raised, in England, on a WW2 diet of anti-Japanese sentiment, I did my best to put prejudice aside, though it lingered when the first Toyota cars and Honda motorcycles came on the market, but I diligently worked on not being prejudiced until someone persauded me to look at Henti(?) a couple of years ago.

    I thought, “These people are seriously weird.” And now this!!

    Oh dear … the whole debacle of Fukushima, pretty much explained by Plutonium kun, etc. … the cutifying of deadly stuff.

    Words fail me. It is more of a gut feeling, backed by facts about Fukushima, that “this is it folks”, no more cutesy than the long ago invasion of Manchuria (and no I am not resorting to prejudice, more like despair). And it is not as if peoples elsewhere are a lot different, because they are not. Who has not been seduced by Disney cutification?

    • Hi Gerry,
      I think you mean “hentai”, but never mind.
      “Oh dear … the whole debacle of Fukushima, pretty much explained by Plutonium kun, etc. … the cutifying of deadly stuff.”
      Basically you’re absolutely right: Plutonium kun does have an awful lot to answer for, becuase he symbolizes the insularity and arrogance of the Japanese nuclear industry. The difference with Manchuria is that this disaster is inflicted on the homeland.

      • “becuase he symbolizes the insularity and arrogance of the Japanese nuclear industry”. oh i see. you may have missed the recent letterman episode involving michiu kaku where letterman cracks funny about the nuclear plant up the river from his studios. how many of the audience – there or at home – do you think retained any sense of the gravitas of nuclear power by the last commercial break? You, me – we can distill our concerns and insights about nuclear energy as follows: i hit the switch and the lights come on. Period. if you are determined to read so much into the little mascot thing then perhaps you can read this also: that in north america (and likely elsewhere) we dont even need mascots – we are perfectly fine living with a bomb up wind as long as – you guess it – when we hit the switch the lights come on. i think that both takes on the worth and wealth of mascots are wrong. likely it is so much static – white noise – blah blah – and that the japanese, because they are no different than any one else, only care that when they hit the switch the lights come on. and the lesson that will be taken away from this disaster will mostly boil down to that. cheers.

  12. Check out this Picasaweb photo collection posted to a friend’s Facebook page.

    You can still get Plutonium-kun T-shirts!

    A bit more about Ugaya here.

    • Jeffrey,
      Sorry to be late getting back to you–off on holiday in Fukushima–and thank you for the links. Do you have any idea how I could get hold of a couple of Plutonium-kun T-shirts? I’m willing to pay handsomely for the privilege…

      • Sorry I didn’t see this reply earlier. If you are still looking for the shirt, I can contact my friend and have him contact the gentleman sporting the T.

        I know that if you contacted Hiro Ugaya, he be happy to lend whatever help he can.

      • It’s OK, thanks Jeffrey, I have tracked the T-shirt down. Post to follow!

  13. Pingback: Update on the Japan Crisis | Crasstalk

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